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Did some media play into ISIS's hands?

ISIS’s surprising claim, without evidence, that it was responsible for the mass shooting in Las Vegas, prompted very different news treatments from different outlets — with some perhaps unintentionally fueling the terrorist organization’s desire for publicity.

While standard bearers like The New York Times and The Washington Post mentioned ISIS’s claims only in the text of their larger stories on the shooting—not running individual articles on them—other outlets blared big headlines. There was particular enthusiasm for reporting on the claims at some right-leaning sites, like the Daily Caller, which briefly streaked a banner headline this morning: “BREAKING NEWS: ISIS Claims Shooter Converted To Islam Before Attack.”

Further out on the spectrum, InfoWars ran a lead story with the claim. The Gateway Pundit also played it prominently—hours after the FBI said that, as of yet, they had found no evidence connecting the shooter to international terror groups, the site had a headline reading: “ISIS Doubles Down On Vegas Attack Responsibility After FBI Denial—Warn Those Who Reject Claim Will ‘Regret’ It.”

Treatments of the claims did not break down cleanly along ideological lines, however: Breitbart cast a skeptical eye, noting ISIS’s lack of evidence in the headline of their own story on the claim. Fox News was also more reserved in its coverage, treating the claims on its website much like the Times and Post.

The AP, Newsweek and The New York Daily News among others, all ran headlines along the lines of, “Islamic State claims Las Vegas mass shooting.” But they weren’t played up as much as those on some more ideological sites, and they generally included crucial context about the lack of evidence.

Regardless of whether or not ISIS actually had any connection to the attack, some experts said that the mere existence of all of the stories could represent a victory for the terrorist group. Given how headlines spread around social media and the Internet—often finding audiences that want to believe their claims—some people are now sure to believe that ISIS was in fact behind one of the deadliest shootings in American history.

“Their followers are going to believe it no matter what, because they’re not going to believe the Western media, and it keeps their name relevant,” said Colin Clarke, a political scientist and terrorism expert for the RAND Corporation. “And it scares the crap out of people like my mom and dad.”

Headlines reporting the claims are, strictly speaking, accurate. But, because of the way people scan through social media feeds, Clarke said that he would have preferred for news outlets to have pointed out that ISIS had no evidence behind its statements, or that the shooter, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, did not fit the normal pattern of ISIS inspired militants.

“If I were a journalist, I would hesitate to make the ISIS claim a headline; the attack is the headline,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who has written a book on ISIS. “If it’s a false claim whose only purpose is (a) uphold ISIS’s internal support base and, (b), to continue this perception that ISIS might be this big enemy and big threat, then we would be playing into ISIS’s hands.”

In the past, ISIS’s claims have generally had truth to them, but lately they have made two high profile false claims – one for an attack on a hotel in the Philippines and the other for placing a bomb at Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. In the Las Vegas case, in addition to the FBI statements, veteran ISIS watchers like the Times’ Rukmini Callimachi have cast doubt on the ISIS claims.

Regardless of the truth behind those claims, Clarke believes that, as the group suffers territorial setbacks, it could be focusing more on influencing the media narrative. “I think frankly there’s a lot of people in this country that want to believe them and will use it for their own agenda,” Clarke said of the claims.

Geoffrey Ingersoll, the editor in chief of The Daily Caller, defended his site’s coverage in an email. “ISIS claiming anything through official channels, like they did, is big news. As soon as the disputes came, we updated the story and wrote another post on the FBI.”

He added that the banner headline was only up for 30 minutes. “We had both ‘ISIS Claims’ and ‘FBI Disputes’ headlines on the front page within an hour of each other. As soon as the IC disputed, we updated the ISIS claims post.”

Still, the existence of the headlines allowed stories to spread around social media. On Twitter, some questioned the existence why news outlets should be reporting it at all:

An AP spokesperson said that the wire service’s story put the issue in proper context.

“The brief news story casts doubt on the Islamic State group’s claim by pointing out that there was no evidence to support it, and that IS often makes claims about acts of individuals with no known links to the group,” a spokesperson said in an email. “It includes some false claims by the Islamic State group in the past.”

Meanwhile, according to a source at Fox News, the FBI’s finding of no ties to ISIS was enough to prevent the network from devoting a full story to the issue. “As authorities are saying they see no ties to terrorism, it is hard to give the ISIS claim much credence in our reporting at this time,” the source said.

The theory behind ISIS’s motives may have been very similar to the Russians’ tactics with their “fake news” campaigns, Lister said. “It’s exactly the same idea, it’s to engender an alternative perspective within portions of the population that then drive another political narrative.”

“We aren’t just in a battle of bullets and bombs, but we’re in a battle of words and perceptions, too. The media has a huge role to play,” he added. “And ISIS knows that full well.”

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